Few poets have been subjected to more various turns of fortune, than the gentleman whose memoirs we are now about to relate. He was amongst the first who refined our poetry, and did more for the interest of the drama, than any who ever wrote for the stage. He lived in time of general confusion, and was no unactive member of the state, when its necessities demanded his assistance; and when, with the restoration, politeness and genius began to revive, he applied himself to the promotion of these rational pleasures, which are fit to entertain a cultivated people. This great man was son of one Mr. John Davenant, a citizen of Oxford, and was born in the month of February, 1605; all the biographers of our poet have observed, that his father was a man of a grave disposition, and a gloomy turn of mind, which his son did not inherit from him, for he was as remarkably volatile, as his father was saturnine. The same biographers have celebrated our author's mother as very handsome, whose charms had the power of attracting the admiration of Shakespear, the highest compliment which ever was paid to beauty. As Mr. Davenant, our poet's father, kept a tavern, Shakespear, in his journies to Warwickshire, spent some time there, influenced, as many believe, by the engaging qualities of the handsome landlady. This circumstance has given rise to a conjecture, that Davenant was really the son of Shakespear, as well naturally as poetically, by an unlawful intrigue, between his mother and that great man; that this allegation is founded upon probability, no reader can believe, for we have such accounts of the amiable temper, and moral qualities of Shakespear, that we cannot suppose him to have been guilty of such an act of treachery, as violating the marriage honours; and however he might have been delighted with the conversation, or charmed with the person of Mrs. Davenant, yet as adultery was not then the fashionable vice, it would be injurious to his memory, so much as to suppose him guilty.
Our author received the first rudiments of polite learning from Mr. Edward Sylvester, who kept a grammar school in the parish of All Saints in Oxford. In the year 1624, the same in which his father was Mayor of the city, he was entered a member of the university of Oxford, in Lincoln's-Inn College, under the tuition of Mr. Daniel Hough, but the Oxford antiquary is of opinion, he did not long remain there, as his mind was too much addicted to gaiety, to bear the austerities of an academical life, and being encouraged by some gentlemen, who admired the vivacity of his genius, he repaired to court, in hopes of making his fortune in that pleasing, but dangerous element. He became first page to Frances, duchess of Richmond, a lady much celebrated in those days, as well for her beauty, as the influence he had at court, and her extraordinary taste for grandeur, which excited her to keep a kind of private court of her own, which, in our more fashionable aera, is known by the name of Drums, Routs, and Hurricanes. Sir William afterwards removed into the family of Sir Fulk Greville, lord Brooke, who being himself a man of taste and erudition, gave the most encouraging marks. Of esteem to our rising bard. This worthy nobleman being brought to an immature fate, by the cruel hands of an assassin, 1628, Davenant was left without a patron, though not in very indigent circumstances, his reputation having increased, during the time he was in his lordship's service: the year ensuing the death of his patron, he produced his first play to the world, called Albovino, King of the Lombards, which met with a very general, and warm reception, and to which some very honourable recommendations were prefixed, when it was printed, in several copies of verses, by men of eminence, among whom, were, Sir Henry Blount, Edward Hyde, afterwards earl of Clarendon, and the honourable Henry Howard. Our author spent the next eight years of his life in a constant attendance upon court, where he was highly caressed by the most shining characters of the times, particularly the earl of Dorset, Edward Hyde, and Lord Treasurer Weston: during these gay moments, spent in the court amusements, an unlucky accident happened to our author, which not a little deformed his face, which, from nature, was very handsome. Wood has affirmed, that this accident arose from libidinous dalliance with a handsome black girl in Axe-yard, Westminster. The plain fact is this, Davenant was of an amorous complexion, and was so unlucky as to carry the marks of his regular gallantries in the depression of his nose; this exposed him to the pleasant raillery of cotemporary wits, which very little affected him, and to shew that he was undisturbed by their merriment, he wrote a burlesque copy of verses upon himself. This accident happened pretty early in his life, since it gave occasion to the following stanzas in Sir John Suckling's Sessions of the Poets, which we have transcribed from a correct copy of Suckling's works.
Will Davenant ashamed of a foolish mischance,
That he had got lately travelling in France,
Modestly hop'd the handsomeness of his muse,
Might any deformity about him excuse.
Surely the company had been content
If they coul'd have found any precedent,
But in all their records in verse, or prose,
There was none of a laureate, who wanted a nose.
Suckling here differs from the Oxford historian, in saying that Sir William's disorder was contracted in France, but as Wood is the highest authority, it is more reasonable to embrace his observation, and probably, Suckling only mentioned France, in order that it might rhime with mischance.
Some time after this, Davenant was rallied by another hand, on account of this accident, as if it had been a jest that could never die; but what is more extraordinary, is, that Sir William himself could not forget the authoress of this misfortune, but has introduced her in his Gondibert, and, in the opinion of some critics, very improperly. He brings two friends, Ulfinore the elder, and Gondibert the younger, on a journey to the court of Gondibert, but in this passage to shew, as he would insinuate the extream folly of youth, they were arrested by a very unexpected accident, notwithstanding the wise councils which Ulfinore had just received from his father. The lines which have an immediate reference to this fair enchantress, are too curious to be here omitted.
The black-ey'd beauty did her pride display,
Thro' a large windo, and in jewels shone,
As if to please the world, weeping for day,
Night had put all her starry jewels on.
This beauty gaz'd on both, and Ulfinor
Hung down his head, but yet did lift his eyes
As if he fain would see a little more,
For much, tho' bashful, he did beauty prize.
Goltho did like a blushless statute stare,
Boldly her practis'd boldness did outlook;
And even for fear she would mistrust her snare,
Was ready to cry out, that he was took.
She, with a wicked woman's prosp'rous art,
A seeming modesty, the window clos'd;
Wisely delay'd his eyes, since of his heart
She thought she had sufficiently dispos'd.
Nicely as bridegroom's was her chamber drest,
Her bed as brides, and richer than a throne;
And sweeter seem'd, than the Circania's nest,
Though built in Eastern groves of Cinnamon.
The price of princes pleasure, who her love,
(Tho'! but false were) at rates so costly bought,
The wealth of many, but many hourly prove
Spoils to some one, by whom herself is caught.
She sway'd b sinful beauty's destiny,
Finds her tyrannic power must now expire,
Who meant to kindle Goltho in her eye,
But to her breast has brought the raging fire.
Yet even in simple love she uses art,
Tho' weepings are from looser eyes, but leaks;
Yet eldest lovers scarce would doubt her heart,
So well she weeps, as she to Goltho speaks.
During our author's attendance at court, he wrote several plays, and employed his time in framing masques, which were acted by the principal nobility of both sexes; the Queen herself condescended to take a share in one of them, which gave very great offence to the scrupulous moralists, which sprung up in those days; the particular account of this dramatic piece we shall give in the conclusion of his life, and now proceed in enumerating the incidents of it.
Upon the death of Ben Johnson, which happened in the year 1637, our poet succeeded to his laurel, notwithstanding the violent opposition of his competitor Thomas May, who was so extremely affected with his disappointment, though he had been a zealous courtier, yet from resentment to the Queen, by whose interest Davenant was preferred, he commenced an enemy to the King's party, and became both an advocate and historian for the Parliament.
As soon as the civil war broke out, Mr. Davenant had an early share in these and demonstrated his loyalty by speaking and acting for the King. He was accused by the parliament for being embarked in a design in May 1641, of reducing the army from their adherence to the parliamentary authority, and bringing it again under the subjection of the King, and defence of his person. In this scheme many of Sir William's friends were engaged, viz. Mr. Henry Piercy, afterwards lord Piercy, Mr. Goring, Mr. Jermyn, Mr. Ashburnham, Sir John Suckling, and others: most of these persons, upon their design being discovered, placed their security in flight, and Mr. Davenant amongst the rest; but a proclamation being published for apprehending him, he was stopped at Feversham, sent up to town, and put into the custody of a sergeant at arms. In the month of July following, our author was bailed, and not long after finding it necessary, on account of the violence of the times, to withdraw to France, he had the misfortune to be seized again in Kent by the Mayor of Canterbury; how he escaped the present danger, none of his biographers have related, but it appears that he did not, upon this occasion, suffer long confinement; he at last retired beyond sea, where he continued for some time, but the Queen sending over a considerable quantity of military stores, for the use of the earl of Newcastle's army, Mr. Davenant returned again to England, offered his service to that noble peer, who was his old friend and patron, and by him made lieutenant-general of his ordnance: this promotion gave offence to many, who were his rivals in his lordship's esteem: they remonstrated, that Sir William Davenant, being a poet, was, for that very reason, unqualified for a place of so much trust, and which demanded one of a solid, and less volatile turn of mind, than the sons of Parnassus generally are. In this complaint they paid but an Indifferent compliment to the General himself who was a poet, and had written, and published several plays. That Davenant behaved well in his military capacity is very probable, since, in the month of September, 1643, he received the honour of knighthood from the King, at the siege of Gloucester, an acknowledgment of his bravery; and signal services, which bestowed at a time when a strict scrutiny was made concerning the merit of officers, puts it beyond doubt, that Davenant, in his martial character, was as deserving as in his poetical. During these severe contentions, and notwithstanding his public character, our author's muse sometimes raised her voice, in the composition of several plays, of which we shall give some account when we enumerate his dramatic performances. History is silent as to the means which induced Davenant to quit the Northern army, but as soon as the King's affairs so far declined, as to afford no hopes of a revival, he judged it necessary to retire into France, where he was extremely well received by the Queen, into whose confidence he had the honour to be taken, and was intrusted with the negotiation of matters of the highest importance, in the summer of the year 1646. Before this time Sir William had embraced the popish religion, which circumstance might so far ingratiate him with the queen, as to trust him with the most important concerns. Lord Clarendon, who had a particular esteem for him, has given a full account of this affair, though not much to his advantage, but yet with all the tenderness due to Sir William's good intentions, and of that long and intimate acquaintance that had subsisted between them; which is the more worthy the reader's notice, as it has entirely escaped the observation of all those, who have undertaken to write this gentleman's Memoirs, though the most remarkable passage in his whole life.
The King, in retiring to the Scots, had followed the advice of the French ambassador, who had promised on their behalf, if not more than he had authority to do, at least, more than they were inclined to perform; to justify, however, his conduct at home, he was inclined to throw the weight, in some measure, upon the King, and with this view, he, by an express, informed cardinal Mazarine, that his Majesty was too reserved in giving the Parliament satisfaction, and therefore desired that some person might be sent over, who had a sufficient degree of credit with the English Monarch, to persuade him to such compliances, as were necessary for his interest. "The Queen, says the noble historian, who was never advised by those, who either understood, or valued her Husband's interest, consulted those about her, and sent Sir William Davenant, an honest man, and a witty, but in all respects unequal to such a trust, with a letter of credit to the King, who knew the person well enough under another character than was likely to give him much credit upon the argument, with which he was entrusted, although the Queen had likewise declared her opinion to his Majesty, that he should part with the church for his peace and security." Sir William had, by the countenance of the French ambassador, easy admission to the King, who heard patiently all he had to say, and answered him in a manner, which demonstrated that he was not pleased with the advice. When he found his Majesty unsatisfied, and not disposed to consent to what was earnestly desired by those by whom he had been sent, who undervalued all those scruples of conscience, with which his Majesty was so strongly possessed, he took upon himself the liberty of offering some reasons to the king, to induce him to yield to what was proposed, and among other things said, it was the opinion and advice of all his friends; his Majesty asked, what friends? to which Davenant replied, lord Jermyn, and lord Colepepper; the King upon this observed, that lord Jermyn did not understand any thing of the church, and that Colepepper was of no religion; but, says his Majesty, what is the opinion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer? to which Davenant answered, he did not know, that he was not there, and had deserted the Prince, and thereupon mentioned the Queen's displeasure, against the Chancellor; to which the King said, "the Chancellor was an honest man, and would never desert him nor the Prince, nor the Church; and that he was sorry he was not with his son, but that his wife was mistaken."
Davenant then offering some reasons of his own, in which he treated the church with indignity, his Majesty was so transported with anger, that he gave him a sharper rebuke than he usually gave to any other man, and forbad him again, ever to presume to come into his presence; upon which poor Davenant was deeply affected, and returned into France to give an account of his ill success to those who sent him.
Upon Davenant's return to Paris, he associated with a set of people, who endeavoured to alleviate the distresses of exile by some kind of amusement. The diversion, which Sir William chose was of the literary sort, and having long indulged an inclination of writing an heroic poem, and having there much leisure, and some encouragement, he was induced to undertake one of a new kind; the two first books of which he finished at the Louvre, where he lived with his old friend Lord Jermyn; and these with a preface, addressed to Mr. Hobbs, his answer, and some commendatory poems, were published in England; of which we shall give some further account in our animadversions upon Gondibert.
While he employed himself in the service of the muses, Henrietta Maria, the queen dowager of England whose particular favourite he was found out business for him of another nature. She had heard that vast improvements might be made in the loyal colony of Virginia, in case proper artificers were sent there; and there being many of these in France who were destitute of employment, she encouraged Sir William to collect there artificers together, who accordingly embarked with his little colony at one of the ports in Normandy; but in this expedition he was likewise unfortunate; for before the vessel was clear of the French coast, she was met by one of the Parliament ships of war, and carried into the isle of Wight, where our disappointed projector was sent close prisoner to Cowes Castle, and there had leisure enough, and what is more extraordinary, wanted not inclination to resume his heroic poem, and having written about half the third book in a very gloomy prison, he thought proper to stop short again, finding himself, as he imagined under the very shadow of death. Upon this occasion it is reported of Davenant, that he wrote a letter to Hobbes, in which he gives some account of the progress he made in the third book of Gondibert, and offers some criticisms upon the nature of that kind of poetry, but why, says he, should I trouble you or myself; with these thoughts, when I am pretty certain I shall be hanged next week. This gaiety of temper in Davenant, while he was in the most deplorable circumstances of distress, carries something in it very singular, and perhaps could proceed from no other cause but conscious innocence; for he appears to have been an inoffensive good natured man. He was conveyed from the Isle of Wight to the Tower of London, and for some time his life was in the utmost hazard; nor is it quite certain by what means he was preserved from falling a sacrifice to the prevailing fury. Some conjecture that two aldermen of York, to whom he had been kind when they were prisoners, interposed their influence for him; others more reasonably conjecture that Milton was his friend, and prevented the utmost effects of party rage from descending on the head of this son of the muses. But by whatever means his life was saved, we find him two years after a prisoner of the Tower, where he obtained some indulgence by the favour of the Lord Keeper Whitlocke; upon receiving which he wrote him a letter of thanks, which as it serves to illustrate how easily and politely he wrote in prose, we shall here insert. It is far removed either from meanness or bombast, and has as much elegance in it as any letters in our language.
I am in suspense whether I should present my thankfulness to your lordship for my liberty of the Tower, because when I confider how much of your time belongs to the public, I conceive that to make a request to you, and to thank you afterwards for the success of it, is to give you no more than a succession of trouble; unless you are resolved to be continually patient, and courteous to afflicted men, and agree in your judgment with the late wise Cardinal, who was wont to say, If he had not spent as much time in civilities, as in business, he had undone his master. But whilst I endeavour to excuse this present thanklessness, I should rather ask your pardon, for going about to make a present to you of myself; for it may argue me to be incorrigible, that, after to many afflictions, I have yet to much ambition, as to desire to be at liberty, that I may have more opportunity to obey your lordship's commands, and shew the world how much I am,
Your lordship's most
Obliged, most humble,
And obedient servant,
Our author was so far happy as to obtain by this letter the favour of Whitlocke, who was, perhaps, a man of more humanity and gentleness of disposition, than some other of the covenanters. He at last obtained his liberty entirely, and was delivered from every thing but the narrowness of his circumstances, and to redress these, encouraged by the interest of his friends, he likewise made a bold effort. He was conscious that a play-house was entirely inconsistent with the gloominess, and severity of these times and yet he was certain that there were people of taste enough in town, to fill one, if such a scheme could be managed; which he conducted with great address, and at last brought to bear, as he had the countenance of lord Whitlocke, Sir John Maynard, and other persons of rank, who really were ashamed of the cant and hypocrisy which then prevailed. In consequence of this, our poet opened a kind of theatre at Rutland House, where several pieces were acted, and if they did not gain him reputation, they procured him what is more solid, and what he then more wanted, money. Some of the people in power, it seems, were lovers of music, and tho' they did not care to own it, they were wise enough to know that there was nothing scandalous or immoral in the diversions of the theatre. Sir William therefore, when he applied for a permission called what he intended to represent an opera; but when he brought it on the stage, it appeared quite another thing, which when printed had the following title: First day's entertainment at Rutland-House by declamation and music, after the manner of the ancients.
This being an introductory piece, it demanded all the author's wit to make it answer different intentions; for first it was to be to pleasing as to gain applause; and next it was to be so remote from the very appearance of a play, as not to give any offence to that pretended sanctity that was then in fashion. It began with music, then followed a prologue, in which the author rallies the oddity of his own performance. The curtain being drawn up to the sound of slow and solemn music, there followed a grave declamation by one in a guilded rostrum, who personated Diogenes, and shewed he use and excellency of dramatic entertainments. The second part of the entertainment consisted of two lighter declamations; the first by a citizen of Paris, who wittily rallies the follies of London; the other by citizen of London, who takes the same liberty with Paris and its inhabitants. To this was tacked a song, and after that came a short epilogue. The music was composed by Dr. Coleman, Capt. Cook, Mr. Henry Laws, and Mr. George Hudson.
There were several other pieces which Sir William introduced upon this stage of the same kind, which met with as much success, as could be expected from the nature of the performances themselves, and the temper and disposition of the audience. Being thus introduced, he at last grew a little bolder, and not only ventured to write, but to act several new plays, which were also somewhat in a new taste; that is, they were more regular in their structure, and the language generally speaking, smoother, and more correct than the old tragedies. These improvements were in a great measure owing to Sir William's long residence in France, which gave him an opportunity of reading their best writers, and hearing the sentiments of their ablest critics upon dramatic entertainments, where they were as much admired and encouraged, as at that time despised in England. That these were really improvements, and that the public flood greatly indebted to Sir William Davenant as a poet, and master of a theatre, we can produce no less an authority than that of Dryden, who, beyond any of his predecessors, contemporaries, or those who have succeeded him, understood poetry as an art. In his essay on heroic plays, he thus speaks, "The first light we had of them, on the English theatre (says he) was from Sir William Davenant. It being forbidden him in the religious times to act tragedies or comedies, because they contained some matter of scandal to those good people, who could more easily dispossess their lawful sovereign, than endure a wanton jest, he was forced to turn his thoughts another way, and to introduce the examples of moral virtue written in verse, and performed in recitative music. The original of this music, and of the scenes which adorned his works, he had from the Italian operas; but he heightened his characters, as I may probably imagine, from the examples of Corneille, and some French pacts. In this condition did this part of poetry remain at his Majesty's return, when grown bolder as now owned by public authority, Davenant revived the Siege of Rhodes, and caused it to be acted as a just drama. But as few men have the happiness to begin and finish any new project, so neither did he live to make his design perfect. There wanted the fulness of a plot, and the variety of characters to form it as it ought; and perhaps somewhat might have been added to the beauty of the stile: all which he would have performed with more exactness, had he pleased to have given us another work of the same nature. For myself and others who came after him, we are bound with all veneration to his memory, to acknowledge what advantage we received from that excellent ground work, which is laid, and since it is an easy thing to add to what is already invented, we ought all of us, without envy to him, or partiality to ourselves, to yield him the precedence in it."
Immediately after the restoration there were two companies of players formed, one under the title of the King's Servants, the other, under that of the Duke's Company, both by patents from the crown the first granted to Henry Killigrew, Esq; and the latter to Sir William Davenant. The King's company acted first at the Red Bull in the upper end of St. John's Street, and after a year or two removing from place to place, they established themselves in Drury-Lane. It was some time before Sir William Davenant compleated his company, into which he took all who had formerly played under Mr. Rhodes in the Cock-Pit in Drury-Lane, and amongst these the famous Mr. Betterton, who appeared first to advantage under the patronage of Sir William Davenant. He opened the Duke's theatre in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields with his own dramatic performance of the Siege of Rhodes, the house being finely decorated, and the stage supplied with painted scenes, which were by him introduced at least, if not invented, which afforded certainly in additional beauty to the theatre, tho' some have insinuated, that fine scenes proved the ruin of acting; but as we are persuaded it will be an entertaining circumstance to our Readers, to have that matter more fully explained, we shall take this opportunity of doing it.
In the reign of Charles I. dramatic entertainments were accompanied with rich scenery, curious machines, and other elegant embellishments, chiefly conducted by the wonderful dexterity of that celebrated English architect Inigo Jones. But these were employed only in masques at court, and were too expensive for the little theatres in which plays were then acted. In them there was nothing more than a curtain of very coarse stuff, upon the drawing up of which, the stage appeared either with bare walls on the sides, coarsly matted, or covered with tapestry; so that for the place originally represented, and all the successive changes in which the poets of those times freely indulged themselves, there was nothing to help the spectator's understanding, or to assist the actor's performance, but bare imagination. In Shakespear's time so undecorated were the theatres, that a blanket supplied the place of a curtain; and it was a good observation of the ingenious Mr. Chitty, a gentleman of acknowledged taste in dramatic excellence, that the circumstance of the blanket, suggested to Shakespear that noble image in Macbeth, where the murderer invokes
Thick night to veil itself in the dunnest smoke of Hell,
Nor Heaven peep thro' the blanket of the dark
To cry hold, hold.
It is true, that while things continued in this situation, there were a great many play-houses, sometimes six or seven open at once. Of these some were large, and in part open, where they acted by day light; others smaller, but better fitted up, where they made use of candles. The plainness of the theatre made the prices small, and drew abundance of company; yet upon the whole it is doubtful, whether the spectators in all these houses were really superior in number, to those who have frequented the theatres in later times. If the spirit and judgment of the actors supplied all deficiencies, and made as some would insinuate, plays more intelligible without scenes, than they afterwards were with them, it must be very astonishing; neither is it difficult to assign another cause, why those who were concerned in play-houses, were angry at the introduction of scenes and decorations, which was, that notwithstanding the advanced prices, their profits from that time were continually sinking; and an author, of high authority in this case, assures us, in an historical account of the stage, that the whole sharers in Mr. Hart's company divided a thousand pounds a year a-piece, before the expensive decorations became fashionable. Sir William Davenant considered things in another light: he was well acquainted with the alterations which the French theatre had received, under the auspice of cardinal Richlieu, who had an excellent taste and he remembered the noble contrivances of Inigo Jones, which were not at all inferior to the designs of the best French masters. Sir William was likewise sensible that the monarch he served was an excellent judge of every thing of this kind and these considerations excited in him a passion for the advancement of the theatre, to which the great figure it has since made is chiefly owing. Mr. Dryden has acknowledged his admirable talents in this way, and gratefully remembers the pains taken by our poet, to set a work of his in the fairest light possible, and to which, he ingenuously ascribes the success with which it was received. This is the history of the rise and progress of scenery on our stage; which, without doubt, gives greater life to the entertainment of a play; but as the best purposes may be prostituted, so there is some reason to believe that the excessive fondness for decorations, which now prevails, has hurt the true dramatic taste. Scenes are to be considered as secondary in a play, the means of setting it off with lustre, and ought to engross but little attention; as it is more important to hear what a character speaks, than to observe the place where he stands; but now the case is altered. The scenes in a Harlequin Sorcerer, and other unmeaning pantomimes, unknown to our more elegant and judging fore-fathers, procure crowded houses, while the noblest strokes of Dryden, the delicate touches of Otway and Rowe, the wild majesty of Shakespear, and the heart-felt language of Lee, pass neglected, when put in competition with those gewgaws of the stage, these feasts of the eye; which as they can communicate no ideas, so they can neither warm nor reform the heart, nor answer one moral purpose in nature.
We ought not to omit a circumstance much in favour of Sir William Davenant, which proves him to have been as good a man as a poet. When at the Restoration, those who had been active in disturbing the late reign, and secluding their sovereign from the throne, became obnoxious to the royal party, Milton was likely to feel the vengeance of the court, Davenant actuated by a noble principle of gratitude, interposed all his influence, and saved the greatest ornament of the world from the stroke of an executioner. Ten years before that, Davenant had been rescued by Milton, and he remembered the favour; an instance, this, that generosity, gratitude, and nobleness of nature is confined to no particular party; but the heart of a good man will still discover itself in acts of munificence and kindness, however mistaken he may be in his opinion, however warm in state factions. The particulars of this extraordinary affair are related in the life of Milton.
Sir William Davenant continued at the head of his company of actors, and at last transferred them to a new and magnificent theatre built in Dorset-Gardens, where some of his old plays were revived with very singular circumstances of royal kindness, and a new one when brought upon the stage met with great applause.
The last labour of his pen was in altering a play of Shakespear's, called the Tempest, so as to render it agreeable to that age, or rather susceptible of those theatrical improvements he had brought into fashion. The great successor to his laurel, in a preface to this play, in which he was concerned with Davenant, "says, that he was a man of quick and piercing imagination, and soon found that somewhat might be added to the design of Shakespear, of which neither Fletcher nor Suckling had ever thought; and therefore to put the last hand to it, he designed the counterpart to Shakespear's plot, namely, that of a man who had never seen a woman, that by this means, these two characters of innocence and love might the more illustrate and commend each other. This excellent contrivance he was pleased to communicate to me, and to desire my assistance in it. I confess that from the first moment it so pleased me, that I never wrote any thing with so much delight. I might likewise do him that justice, to acknowledge that my writing received daily amendments, and that is the reason why it is not to faulty, as the rest that I have done, without the help or correction of to judicious a friend. The comical parts of the sailors were also of his invention and writing, as may easily be discovered from the stile."
This great man died at his house in little Lincoln's-Inn-Fields, April 17, 1668, aged 63, and two days afterwards was interred in Westminster-Abbey. On his gravestone is inscribed, in imitation of Ben Johnson's short epitaph,
O RARE SIR WILLIAM DAVENANT!
It may not be amiss to observe, that his remains rest very near the place out of which those of Mr. Thomas May, who had been formerly his rival for the bays, and the Parliament's historian, were removed, by order of the ministry. As to the family our author left behind him, some account of it will be given in the life of his son Dr. Charles Davenant, who succeeded him as manager of the theatre. Sir William's works entire were published by his widow 1673, and dedicated to James Duke of York.
After many storms of adversity, our author spent the evening of his days in ease and serenity. He had the happiness of being loved by people of all denominations, and died lamented by every worthy good man. As a poet, unnumbered evidences may be produced in his favour. Amongst these Mr. Dryden is the foremost, for when his testimony can be given in support of poetical merit, we reckon all other evidence superfluous, and without his, all other evidences deficient. In his words then we shall sum up Davenant's character as a poet, and a man of genius.
"I found him, (says he) in his preface to the Tempest, of so quick a fancy, that nothing was proposed to him on which he could not quickly produce a thought extreamly pleasant and surprizing, and these first thoughts of his, contrary to the old Latin proverb, were not always the least happy, and as his fancy was quick, to likewise were the products of it remote and new. He borrowed not of any other, and his imaginations were such as could not easily enter into any other man. His corrections were sober and judicious, and he corrected his own writings much more severely than those of another man, bestowing twice the labour and pain in polishing which he used in invention."
Before we enumerate the dramatic works of Sir William Davenant, it will be but justice to his merit, to insert some animadversions on his Gondibert; a poem which has been the subject of controversy almost a hundred years; that is, from its first appearance to the present time. Perhaps the dispute had been long ago decided, if the author's leisure had permitted him to finish it. At present we fee it to great disadvantage; and if notwithstanding this it has any beauties, we may fairly conclude it would have come much nearer perfection, if the story, begun with to much spirit, had been brought to an end upon the author's plan.
Mr. Hobbes, the famous philosopher of Malmsbury, in a letter printed in his works, affirms, "that he never yet saw a poem that had so much shape of art, health of morality and vigour, and beauty of expression, as this of our author; and in an epistle to the honourable Edward Howard, author of the British Princes, he thus speaks. My judgment in poetry has been once already censured by very good wits for commending Gondibert; but yet have they, not disabled my testimony. For what authority is there in wit? a jester may have it; a man in drink may have it, and be fluent over night, and wise and dry in the morning: What is it? and who can tell whether it be better to have it or no? I will take the liberty to praise what I like as well as they, and reprehend what they like." — Mr. Rymer in his preface to his translation of Rapin's Reflexions on Aristototle's Treatise of Poetry, observes, that our author's wit is well known, and in the preface to that poem, there appears some strokes of an extraordinary judgment; that he is for unbeaten tracts, and new ways of thinking, but certainly in the untried seas he is no great discoverer. One design of the Epic poets before him was to adorn their own country, there finding their heroes and patterns of virtue, where example, as they thought, would have the greater influence and power over posterity; "but this poet, says Rymer, steers a different course; his heroes are all foreigners; he cultivates a country that is nothing a-kin to him, and Lombardy reaps the honour of all. Other poets chose some action or hero so illustrious, that the name of the poem prepared the reader, and made way, for its reception; but in this poem none can divine what great action he intended to celebrate, nor is the reader obliged to know whether the hero be Turk or Christian; nor do the first lines give any light or prospect into the design. Altho' a poet should know all arts and sciences, yet ought he discreetly to manage his knowledge. He must have a judgment to select what is noble and beautiful, and proper for the occasion. He must by a particular chemistry, extract the essence of things; without soiling his wit with dross or trumpery. The sort of verse Davenant makes choice of in his Gondibert might contribute much to the vitiating his stile; for thereby he obliges himself to stretch every period to the end of four lines: Thus the sense is broken perpetually with parentheses, the words jumbled in confusion, and darkness spread over all; but it must be acknowledged, that Davenant had a particular talent for the manners; his thoughts are great, and there appears something roughly noble thro' the whole." This is the substance of Rymer's observations on Gondibert. Rymer was certainly a scholar, and a man of discernment; and tho' in some parts of the criticisms he is undoubtedly right, yet in other parts he is demonstrably wrong. He complains that Davenant has laid the scene of action in Lombardy, which Rymer calls neglecting his own country; but the critic should have considered, that however well it might have pleased the poet's countrymen, yet as an epic poem is supposed to be read in every nation enlightened by science, there can no objections arise from that quarter by any but those who were of the same country with the author. His not making choice of a pompous name, and introducing his poem with an exordium, is rather a beauty than a fault; for by these means he leaves room for surprize, which is the first excellency in any poem, and to strike out beauties where they are not expected, has a happy influence upon the reader. Who would think from Milton's introduction, that to stupendous a work would ensue, and simple dignity is certainly more noble, than all the efforts and colourings which art and labour can bestow.
The ingenious and learned Mr. Blackwall, Professor of Greek in the university of Aberdeen, in his enquiry into the life and writings of Homer, censures the structure of the poem but, at the same time pays a compliment to the abilities of the author. "It was indeed (says he) a very extraordinary project of our ingenious countryman, to write an epic poem without mixing allegory, or allowing the smallest fiction throughout the composure. It was like lopping off a man's limb, and then putting him upon running races; tho' it must be owned that the performance shews, with what ability he could have acquitted himself, had he been sound and entire."
Such the animadversions which critics of great name have made on Gondibert, and the result is, that if Davenant had not power to begin and consummate an epic poem, yet by what he has done, he has a right to rank in the first class of poets, especially when it is considered that we owe to him the great perfection of the theatre, and putting it upon a level with that of France and Italy; and as the theatrical are the most rational of all amusements, the latest posterity should hold his name in veneration, who did to much for the advancement of innocent pleasures, and blending instruction and gaiety together [list of dramatic works omitted].
These pieces have in general been received with applause on the stage, and have been read with pleasure by people of the best taste: The greatest part of them were published in the author's lifetime in 4to. and all since his death, collected into one volume with his other works, printed in folio, Lond. 1673; and dedicated by his widow to the late King James, as has been before observed.